The Lost World of John Kennedy

The country that elected him, watched him govern and mourned his death was a very different America .

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Kennedy's civil rights bill was on its way toward passage when he died. The country was forever changed. Reluctantly, only after prodding by others, Kennedy helped to end a system of segregation that today few Americans would defend.

The privacy issue. Kennedy harbored very few illusions. He well knew how much of his good fortune was owed to others--including his Machiavellian father. Yet he achieved his success in a country that loved its illusions, that yearned to believe in its leaders and great institutions, that happily suspended disbelief in the great spectacles of politics and entertainment.

From his years in Hollywood, Joseph Kennedy knew how gossip columnists like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper catered to a public that wanted to see its movie stars as ordinary family people, despite their divorces and the gaudy glamour of their lifestyles. Similarly, political reporters suppressed any evidence of departure from middle-class mores, never investigating or reporting on politicians' drunkenness or dalliance. John Kennedy could flaunt his family's wealth and glamour and yet be so confident that his sexual affairs would never be made public that he greatly enjoyed Marilyn Monroe, the nation's most sultry movie star and evidently one of his paramours, singing "Happy Birthday" to him in Madison Square Garden in 1962.

Americans understood their nation was not perfect. But they cherished a version of history that showed how the country was specially blessed, with a special mission to promote freedom and democracy in the world. They also trusted their institutions. More than 70 percent in Kennedy's time thought the federal government would do what is right most of the time or always; just 29 percent felt the same by 1992. Americans in the early 1960s found it easy to regard the cool and cynical John Kennedy as warm and idealistic, to overlook his mistakes and appreciate his successes, to give him the highest job ratings of any president, despite a performance that even his admirers admit had important flaws. At the time, he seemed the latest in a line of great leaders who had come forward from odd corners of the country to lead it to victory in time of crisis.

Kennedy's presidency thus seemed to follow a familiar American pattern. But his death made no sense at all. Americans had seen their country led to victory in two terrible wars by leaders of great genius, who, drained of energy by their efforts, were struck down just at the moment of victory. There was Abraham Lincoln a century before and Franklin Roosevelt within living memory.

By contrast, John Kennedy's death in November 1963 seemed utterly dissonant. He died not at the moment of triumph but in the middle of battle. He seemed not drained of life but young and vital--killed by an odd loner or, some thought, a sinister conspiracy. It was the first of many shocking events of the 1960s--urban riots and campus rebellions, defeats in war, the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy--that made it seem that all the old rules no longer applied and every source of order had vanished.

Kennedy, often incidentally or against his inclinations, transformed the country that elected him. It had lived with racial segregation and class-warfare politics, in fear of nuclear holocaust and mistrust of differing creeds--but it was also confident of its own goodness and the worthiness of its great institutions. Only in that older America could John Kennedy, a Catholic Democrat preoccupied with foreign policy and willing to make accommodations with segregationists, have been elected. Only Kennedy could have changed that nation so thoroughly, for the better while he lived and for the worse by the way he died.